Moral Victory?

Autumn is my favorite time of year. The temperature is perfect – not too hot, not too cold. Oktoberfest beers and pumpkin-flavored ales can’t be topped in terms of seasonal beverages. Add in professional and college football and you’ve got the recipe for Heaven on Earth. With this past weekend being the opening weekend of the NFL regular season, I felt like a kid on Christmas (or like a beer enthusiast in the Fall based on my affection for this time of year). Right off the bat, we had the Browns playing in Pittsburgh. We got to see the new defense. We got to see the new coach. We got to see the new running attack. We got to see the multiple shots of Johnny Football on the sidelines because the world needs to know what his favorite Gatorade flavor is. Like every year, I held out hope that this would finally be the year that the Browns return to relevance. Then the game started…and like all those years before, it didn’t take long for that hope to die a quick but somehow excruciating death.

Now with the lack of offense Cleveland showed in the preseason, I wasn’t expecting any Red Rider BB Gun-esque gifts on Sunday; but I certainly wasn’t expecting the life-sized pink bunny suit I saw in the first half. The defense was allergic to tackling and stayed clear of Pittsburgh receivers as if they were carrying the Ebola virus. The offense sputtered continuously after the first drive with long-developing plays never actually developing. The team was slow and looked as if they had no idea they were supposed to be playing that day. I started to think that it may not be such a bad idea to miss watching a few games this year. I started thinking that maybe we’ll see Johnny Football on the field sooner than expected. I started thinking ahead to next year’s draft and potential targets.

But then, the second half began…

It began without Jordon Cameron.

It began without Ben Tate.

Somehow, despite all of this, a different team took the field for Cleveland. Slowly but surely, my hope began to be revived.

Receiving the ball to being the second half, the Browns rolled out a no-huddle up-tempo offense that marched down the field with a brilliant mix of run, pass, and play action and found the end zone. The defense took the field with a nastier attitude than we had seen in the first half and forced a quick punt. The offense got the ball back and, like before, marched down the field and found the end zone. Two touchdowns in a row? That doesn’t happen with the Browns especially in Pittsburgh. ESPECIALLY on opening weekend. ESPECIALLY after the beyond-embarrassing first half.

For most of the second half, the Steelers defense was on its heels. The Cleveland offense kept it off balance with a great mix of play calling. Multiple times, play action froze the defenders rushing Brian Hoyer long enough for him to carve up the D with crisp, quick passes. Terrance West delivered some punishing runs on his way to 100 yards in his NFL debut. Isiah Crowell found the end zone twice in his NFL debut. The only thing noteworthy that Troy Polamalu did the entire game was his typical terrible-form-diving-spear attempt at a tackle (which looked like it hurt him more than our receiver).

On the other side of the ball, the Browns were nasty and intense. They held the Pittsburgh offense to multiple three-and-outs. They rushed Ben and made him more uncomfortable than co-eds cornered in a bathroom stall. They bottled up the running attack with gang-tackling and well-timed blitzes. They held the team that scored 27 first half points to three in the second half.

Everyone knows how the game ended. Cleveland tied it up early in the fourth quarter, had a couple chances to take the lead but squandered them, and surrendered a field goal to the Steelers as time ran out because did anyone really think something else was going to happen?

In his press conference, Mike Pettine mentioned that there are no moral victories. Much of the media echoed those thoughts. And I agree that there are no moral victories…sometimes…Yes, Cleveland is 0-1 going into week two for the 10th season in a row. Nothing new. Yes, Cleveland lost in Pittsburgh to Ben Roethlisberger – a Cleveland tradition. What is new is that while no one would have blamed the Browns for giving up at halftime and taking their beating, they decided to keep playing. What is new is that we saw a team make legitimate halftime adjustments on both sides of the ball. What is new is that while Cleveland sits at 0-1 now, their goal is to be at .500 going into week three rather than to hope for continuity on offense and tackling on defense. What is new is that the Browns showed signs of a balanced offense with a hard-nosed mentality that we haven’t seen on the shores of Lake Erie for quite some time. I can honestly say that this is the most pumped I’ve ever been after a Cleveland loss.

I would venture to guess that at least 100% of Browns’ fans expected a final score of 34-13 (at best) once the second quarter ended. When they scored that touchdown right at the start of the third quarter, I thought Pittsburgh would do what good teams do and step on Cleveland’s throat (or kick them in the face). But the guys in the orange helmets didn’t let them. For so long, the Browns have been Ralphie Parker to the Steelers Scut Farkus (wtf kind of name is that?). This past weekend, Ralphie walked into the Farkus home and Scut beat the crap out of him. But rather than cry “uncle,” Ralphie stood back up and gave Scut a whoopin’ of his own. In the end, Scut shoved Ralhpie out of his house and on his way with Scut’s dignity intact - barely. However, don’t be surprised if Scut is a little worried about visiting Ralphie’s house in a few weeks.